Despite the exposure of the Cambridge Spies, a group of Soviet moles operating out of British Intelligence, and their subsequent defection to the other side, the British have always boasted of not succumbing to a panic attack of McCarthyism. It was true that investigations into Soviet espionage were done quietly and almost exclusively directed at the employers of Philby, Burgess, McLean, and Blunt rather than any publicity-grabbing interrogations of the entertainment industry.
To rescue some national pride for America, it should be noted, however, that unlike the Spies who settled any debate about their guilt by escaping to the other side, the American public was never allowed the luxury of such closure and the State Department officials denying everything (like Hiss) gave some credence to McCarthy’s conspiracy so immense charges.
But closure only covers so much for the leftist defenders of Hiss. Even without Hiss settling in Moscow, compelling evidence had accumulated since 1950, some of it coming from that ideologically impeccable source, the Soviet archives, that established Hiss’ guilt for even those who expended so much energy on his behalf. But the Nation Magazine remained, then and now, as the holdout. Like true believers, they have hurled holy water on any damning evidence, and have instead redirected their readers’ focus onto the “fascist” character of Hiss accuser Whittaker Chambers.
But in their midst was a reluctant dissident. Operating out of the Hiss “church,” Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens was not a hypocrite, attacking only the religious version of faith. Hitchens’ atheism had a secular component as well, and he applied this to the article of faith that Hiss could not be anything but innocent (one Nation reader once said that even if Hiss confessed his Soviet espionage on his deathbed, the reader still wouldn’t believe it). He did, however, try to approach the issue with British phlegm and use of the operating mechanism of his Marxist ideology, the dialectic.
He would fail in both approaches.
Hitchens first mentioned Chambers in 1987, years before the Venona Telegrams–a series of intercepted Soviet messages that vindicated Chambers’ testimony against Hiss–were declassified, in a manner that went against the one-dimensional portrait of Chambers as the front man for American fascism. Hitchens sensed something “authentic beneath the bombast and self-pity” of Chambers and praised him for attempting to persuade the Buckley crowd of having nothing to do with Joseph McCarthy. But to counterbalance this or to be more dialect, Hitchens adopt the Nation metier of the character issue, attacking Chambers as “an unstable fantasy merchant,” “a paranoid deadbeat.” But he could only take this so far. Even accepting these characterizations gave Chambers credibility with regard to his bizarro world behavior during the case such as trying to protect Hiss, and then, after handing over documents that established Hiss’ guilt, tried to kill himself.
What of Hiss himself? With the accused, Hitchens’ attempt at counterbalance faltered even more. He faulted Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote a biography of Chambers, “for repeating what earlier witnesses told Allen Weinstein in his book, Perjury,” without reference to their “second thoughts.”. But with the known sympathies these religionists had for Hiss, their second thoughts were probably more in line with spin, and thus Hitchens was left with a pretty feeble defense.
Hitchens attempted to take a humorous no-dog-in-this-fight approach when meeting Hiss for the first time. Recounting a dinner with him, Hitchens recounted that he sarcastically asked the hostess to close all the doors so he could ask Hiss why he did it.
But Hitchens couldn’t continue such an approach when confronted by the knee-jerk behavior of his Left. Hitchens criticized their feverish refusal to not give ammunition to the likes of Nixon and McCarthy, and asserted If they had truly believed in this concept, then they should have abandoned Hiss in order to thwart these red-baiters and “accomplish a great good.”
He once wrote that the argument about the case should keep going until everyone who remembers it has died. But a year before his death, Hitchens no longer tried to muster arguments for some kind of balance. He accepted Chambers’ account of Hiss admiring Stalin’s ruthlessness during the Purge Trials (“Joe Stalin certainly plays for keeps”) and listed this as one more example of Hiss being “a lifelong opportunist,” who felt he was backing a winner.
Hitchens was famous for championing debate over consensus. He cited “finding common ground” as one of the worst phrases in the English language. To his credit, he did not try to bring the pro and anti-Hiss sides together for some sort of healing process. He attempted to stay above the fray by exhibiting the fabled British calm. But he could only avoid the truth about Hiss so long. For once, his dialectic wasn’t adequate, and the yin of Hiss being guilty overwhelmed the yang of him being innocent.